Why can’t you plug the cable from your satellite into a “cable ready” TV?

See that black screen? That’s all you’ll get if you connect the cable from your satellite dish straight into your TV. Unlike cable TV (properly called “terrestrial cable”) your average TV just can’t decode what it’s seeing, and the result is, it doesn’t work at all.

Today’s televisions have a mandate to be “cable-ready.” This means that in addition to an ATSC tuner to get regular antenna TV, the TV must also have a QAM tuner to receive cable channels. QAM is the technology used by cable companies because it’s more effective at putting multiple channels in the relatively limited space available on a single coaxial cable. It can be “clear” meaning free of any scrambling, or “encrypted” meaning you would need a box from your cable company to decode it.

Satellite TV doesn’t use QAM for several reasons. QAM isn’t designed as a broadcast technology. Even if you did broadcast a QAM signal it wouldn’t do very well. It’s designed to travel over cables where the signal can get from point to point with relatively little loss. The DBS technology used by satellite is about as different from QAM as you can get — it’s a true digital technology designed to work at very low power and still provide a great signal with fairly high error rates. DBS comes in several different “flavors” and is all encrypted, which is why you need your satellite provider’s box to decode it.

In order to make it so a satellite signal could work with your cable-ready TV, you would need one of two things to happen. Either your TV would need a built-in satellite tuner, or you would need an incredibly expensive translation box (called a headend) to translate from DBS to QAM (and that would need a built-in satellite tuner.) It’s just not worth it.

So what’s the next best thing? Both DIRECTV and DISH have technologies that let you use your TV with no box attached. DIRECTV Ready is here now, while Virtual Joey is coming, most likely this year. You would still need a separate box to decode the signal but it can be in another room and not attached to the TV. There are rumors that LG is working on a TV that would include DIRECTV Ready, Virtual Joey, and of course off-air and cable-ready tuners in one TV that of course, would also have access to Netflix, Hulu Plus and other streaming services. That’s as close to the holy grail as you’re going to get.